April 2010

Kati Nolfi

Bad Behavior

Three Novellas: So Much Better by Terri Griffith, A Happy Man by Hansjörg Schertenleib, Sandokan by Nanni Balestrini

Here are three novellas, like dark little pills, for the girl on the go. Terri Griffith's So Much Better starts out remote, perfunctory, and inert. I wanted to throw it boring and colorless against the wall, smoosh it like a bug. The human element can seem lost at first. It seems like a story not about Liz and Jenny, but Table and Chair. But don’t give up. The dramatic moments are indifferent to themselves; there are no histrionics here. Terri Griffith’s writing recalls mumblecore. Dialogue and description don’t figure much in this story, more ideological than character driven. This all becomes haunting and real and as always, dystopian. So Much Better is a performance of real life, the kind you might want to shake, say “Yes! That’s It!” but sadly. There are details that Griffith gets astonishingly right, especially vis-à-vis the workplace. We need more literature about work, where most people spend their time.

Liz works for a credit union where frequent bomb threats are of no real concern. Anyone who works in customer service for an impenetrable institution may relate to her near-cruelty to supplicant customers, her protectiveness of insider knowledge, and disgust for outsiders. Liz maintains her own privacy while peering into others’ lives and working for an industry that tracks habits and practices and draws conclusions about personal worth. She has confidence and assertiveness in work and sex though she doesn’t much enjoy either. The separate spheres of Liz’s life -- work, social, home -- distribute her personae, her various attitudes. Jenny, her boozy and lusty girlfriend is present mostly in her absence. She is always at the bar or off with a new lover. Liz is usually alone but she is not necessarily depressed about this, though sometimes humiliated. She courts empty sex relationships and discards them once the other woman becomes interested. Liz seduces Jenny’s teenage sister and a middle aged credit union customer; she finds it difficult to connect with people, better to eat a pizza and drink two bottles of wine. Seduction gives her control. We see that identity and relationships are not how they first appear. They are transmogrified possibly by the powers of drinking; Liz is seen hiding from her power, hiding from trifling lovers.

Liz has few interests beyond a vague liberalism, an obligatory good taste for public radio, antipathy to AM radio, and concern for the environment. She travels by bus to obtain a readymade sense of community. Her life is small and circumscribed. While she is nearly victimized by her girlfriend’s cheating and the demands of work, she still has agency. The authorial voice does not scorn her. Her dissatisfaction is not depicted with pathos or contempt. She tries to escape her situation but knows that she will likely fall into the same pattern in another state; she will settle into dullness with another live-in girlfriend and a job. She packs up and leaves, erases her identity but folds professional clothes and important papers, disappearing the sensible way. She flies away but isn’t necessarily liberated. A dual flux and fixity are maintained. While she is trying to get away from her life she knows she will circle right back to her origins.

A Happy Man is Hansjörg Schertenleib’s first book translated in English. This Studer (full name here) plays jazz trumpet, travels to Amsterdam. The story is ephemeral and elusive with poetic sound but not poetic meaning. Like other novellas, A Happy Man resorts to poetry in the unavailability of plot and character. Studer doesn’t breathe life into the author’s ideas. It seems that Schertenleib’s philosophy lives uncomfortably with the insignificant moments of the characters. Did the author begin with an idea about happiness instead of a character? Studer doesn’t evidence joy though he talks about it a lot: “What is happiness? A sudden, unexpected attack that makes you forget life’s burden? A rapture lasting only a second? A smell, a color, a touch? A permanent state? Or is it perhaps just a word? Are we even aware of being happy? Doesn’t happiness appear just when we’re not expecting it, when we’ve forgotten about it?”

The details such as his grandfather teaching him trumpet are moody and sentimental but ultimately just atmosphere, like watching Robert Bresson. The conversations are bloodless, the relationships are unconvincing. Is it the translation, or an unfamiliar Swiss quality? I am not convinced that Studer is actually happy. Being told that he is, contrasting his supposed contentedness with his wife Daniela’s depression and his daughter’s petulance isn’t enough. Daniela’s “secret wish is that he, too, would have his bad days.” He does: “This felt a weight settle on his chest. Suddenly, he had to fight back the tears in his eyes.” Schertenleib attempts to show the benign Studer’s darkness here and in a particularly effective scene of Studer tormenting a dog as a child. He tests the beast and punishes him to prove his dominance.

A Happy Man book recalls the superior Lucinella (from the same Contemporary Art of the Novella series) in the way the camera pulls back to show life ending, asking what it means. The book tells us that “we’ve gotten to know him a bit and can see he imagines that he’s playing the trumpet, one last song…. And life in general quickly resumed its course, whether or not a man was lying in the street.” I suppose this all means that an individual’s happiness is important only to him and only until the moment he dies. We are so concerned with such things but once we die it doesn’t much matter. Yet to the people who matter, this death is maybe the most shattering and awakening event, more than the conduct of a life. Studer says about his wife: “Shouldn’t you be doing everything in your power to live with the person you love instead of resigning yourselves to old age together?” All a bit existentialist and depressing for a book that is about a happy man. Maybe we are only supposed to believe that “we humans leave this world alone. And that we’d better get used to [being alone] while we’re still alive.”

Sandokan is another Contemporary Art of the Novella book and like the others I’ve read, it is dark and unforgiving. Sandokan is written without punctuation, a stream of hyper-consciousness interrupted only by large paragraph breaks and chapters. Nanni Balestrini’s identity as a poet and a radical intellectual comes through vibrantly in the novella’s politics and language. For minds and eyes used to reading more traditional fiction this structure can be draining and difficult to read without inserting punctuation and filtering the experimental writing through conventional means of making sense. Yet, the form is purposeful and the story seems to be told on the run, as if the narrator is being chased, is in danger and must unburden himself, must create forbidden literature. The rush of words like bullets creates an energy, flood, violence, immediacy, and breathlessness, all the while maintaining deadpan journalism.

Sandokan is a near-spaghetti Western and a tour through hell. While Sandokan is an actual person, the boss of a crime family, more importantly he is a symbol and stands in for every criminal: “and so you just imagine for yourself a town like that what could ever come out of a town like that it couldn’t produce a Mahatma Gandhi or a Che Guevara it could only produce a Sandokan only Sandokan could come out of a town like this.” The story starts in the middle of gunfire and is told in first person by a weary yet manic unnamed survivor and citizen -- a sometimes barista, sometimes farmer -- an escapee who insists in the novella’s last line: “I repeated to myself over and over I’m never coming back to my home town.”

Although the town is dull and deadly the tale is told urgently and vividly:  

what I mean is this the thing that people who study organized crime never seem              to understand is the fact that the real problem is that it’s not just that there’s a              group of criminals murderers psychopaths people who want to make a lot of              money as quickly as possible it’s really about the mindset of this place because              here’s the thing you grow up and live in a place where you don’t have a right to a              thing that is from the day you’re born you have no rights nothing is assured              you’ve got nothing…in our town here there’s nothing and I mean nothing there’s              fuck all there’s not a movie theater not a library not a public park not even a              working school so since there’s not a fucking thing here no services no public              institutions no nothing of any kind what you’re left with is that for anything that              you can get out of life here you have to turn to the organization to the clan to get              it here they’re in charge or else if you want to avoid trouble and it doesn’t take a              lot to satisfy you then you have to work everything out on your own

 This recalls for me the ghettos of American cities, gangs forming communities of casual violence in the absence of support systems and social justice and the presence of institutionalized systems of oppression.

In this small farming town in southern Italy there are many tragedies. There are the struggles of being a poor farmer in thrall to the crime syndicate, drug trafficking, cruelty of children, xenophobia, attempted assimilation, exploitation of eastern European prostitutes, institutional racism, terrible working conditions, no way out. Balestrini shows that history is not an accident; these terrors are planned and constructed. The book becomes a sort of manifesto but this manifesto is revealed through a story, the story is not an excuse for a diatribe. Sandokan is a masterful Italian tragedy, blunt and never romantic.